Demand for river water pits growers against fish
Ventura County Star (CA), 2014-02-21
Feb. 21--When rain finally comes again to Ventura County, it will have to fill more buckets than ever before.
For decades, farmers and cities on the Oxnard Plain have relied on rain that flows through the Santa Clara River to replenish underground aquifers from which water is pumped. That's been going on since 1928, when an earthen dam was built near Saticoy to divert river water.
A series of licenses issued by the State Water Board beginning in the late 1950s gave the United Water Conservation District the right to divert the water, a practice that was enhanced in 1991 with the construction of the concrete Vern Freeman Diversion Dam.
But new legal demands were placed on water flowing through the Santa Clara after the Southern California steelhead trout was listed as an endangered species in 1997, which led to the creation of a recovery plan. Enough water had to be left in the river to facilitate steelhead migration, which has fallen from about 40,000 fish per year in the 1940s to near zero today.
Water management on the Oxnard Plain could become more complicated still, depending on the result of a complaint filed late last year by the Wishtoyo Foundation, Ventura Coastkeeper and Center for Biological Diversity. They have asked the State Water Resources Control Board to further restrict diversions to protect native plants and endangered birds that populate the riverbed, as well as the steelhead.
To receive a permit from the Fisheries Service to continue its diversions, the United District was required in 2008 to develop a habitat conservation plan, which will require modifications to its Santa Felica Dam at Lake Piru and the Freeman Diversion.
The plan, which will cover 11 species including the steelhead, is still under development. It will require that millions be spent for construction of a fish passage, physical habitat improvements and extensive monitoring. The district has spent $6 million to date on license compliance, plan preparation and design studies.
United Board President Lynn Maulhardt estimates the district will ultimately spend about $80 million to comply with federal requirements. "It doesn't produce one additional drop of water anywhere in Southern California," he said.
In an average year, United diverts about 78,000 acre-feet of water from the Santa Clara for groundwater replenishment. Maulhardt estimates that taking steps to obtain the federal permit will reduce that total by about 15,000 or 30,000 acre-feet.
The Wishtoyo complaint could lead to even greater cutbacks in diversions.
It suggests that more consistent river flows would provide recreational and economic opportunities that could potentially offset any harm to the agricultural industry, including low-paid farmworkers.
The action has so alarmed the agricultural industry that the county and state Farm Bureaus have stepped forward to join the Water District in responding to the complaint.
"In essence, the Wishtoyo complaint suggests that farmworkers would be better off if we eliminated their jobs, because then they'd be free to land higher-paying jobs in the river-based recreational industry that will magically appear once we take away farmers' water and drive them out of business," said John Krist, executive director of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.
Jason Weiner, staff attorney for Ventura Coastkeeper, said his organization does not mean to understate the importance of agriculture. He notes the complaint proposes alternative sources of water for aquifer replenishment and the construction of additional infrastructure that would allow United to divert more water during heavy flood events.
County farmers, however, are frustrated that federal law gives standing to a nearly nonexistent fish that may never again be able to navigate its way to spawning areas in Sespe, Santa Paula and Piru creeks, but is indifferent to the groundwater basins that sustain a $2 billion-a-year industry.
Grower Thomas Vujovich Jr., president of the Pleasant Valley County Water District board, believes changes to the Endangered Species Act are needed to help preserve Ventura County farming. "I don't think the fish people will be satisfied until the diversion and the dam are gone," he said.
(c)2014 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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